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Grant in 1852 aged 59

Robert Edmond Grant MD FRCPEd FRS (1793–1874) was born in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh University as a physician. He became one of the foremost biologists of the early 19th century at Edinburgh and subsequently the first Professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London. He is noted for his influence on the young Charles Darwin, and his espousal of Geoffroy's ideas on evolution.

Grant held the UCL chair of comparative anatomy for life (1827–1874); he was elected FRS in 1836; he became Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution 1837-8, and in 1847 Dean of the UCL Medical Faculty. In 1853 he became Swiney lecturer in geology to the British Museum.

Contents

Career

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Edinburgh

Having obtained his MD at Edinburgh in 1814, he gave up medical practice in favour of marine biology and invertebrate zoology, living on a legacy from his father. As a materialist freethinker, and politically radical, he was open to ideas in biology that were considered subversive in the climate of opinion prevailing in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. He cited Erasmus Darwin's Zoönomia in his doctoral dissertation, a work which introduced the idea of evolution in poetical form. Grant travelled widely, visiting universities in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland and came into contact with the French zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who promulgated a view on evolution similar to that of Lamarck's.

Grant studied marine life around the Firth of Forth, collecting specimens around the shores near a house he took at Prestonpans as well as from fishing boats, and becoming an expert on the biology of sponges and sea-slugs. He considered that the same laws of life affected all organisms, from monad to man (in this context monad means a hypothetical primitive living organism or unit of organic life). Following Geoffroy, Grant arranged life into a chain, or an escalator, which was kept moving upwards by the appearance of spontaneously emerging monads at its base.

Grant was a stalwart of the Plinian Society for student naturalists which Charles Darwin joined in the autumn of 1826 while starting his second year of medical studies at Edinburgh University. Darwin became Grant's keenest student and assisted him with collecting specimens as well as learning from Grant's knowledge and theories.

During that winter and spring Grant published twenty papers in Edinburgh journals, mostly on sponges, eggs and larvae, which won him an international reputation, with the papers getting translated into French. Grant took Darwin as a guest to the Wernerian society which was held in Professor Robert Jameson's room with membership restricted to MDs, where Darwin saw a demonstration by John James Audubon.

On March 24 1827 Grant announced to the society that Darwin had established that black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech, and published a paper on this discovery, while Darwin himself made a presentation on March 27 announcing this and his observations on sea-slug larvae to the Plinian society. Darwin contributed to Grant's investigations into the 'unity of plan' of animals which culminated with Grant's announcement to the Wernerian society that he had identified the pancreas in molluscs, demonstrated with a pinned-out sea-slug. This showed a homology between these simple creatures and mammals, tying them into his controversial chain of life.

University College London

Grant then became Professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London, a post he held from 1827 until his death in 1874. Grant's pay was a mere £39 per annum.[1] Darwin did not complete his medical studies at Edinburgh and moved in 1827 to Christ's College, Cambridge. They met again in 1831 when Darwin visited him to get advice on storing specimens immediately before setting out on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Grant was always involved in radical and democratic causes, campaigning for a new Zoological Society museum run professionally rather than by aristocratic grandees and tried to turn the British Museum into a research institution run along French lines. He was opposed by Tories who attacked him for supporting "the reptile press" and its "blasphemous derision of the truths of Christianity" and succeeded in getting him voted out of a post at the Zoological Society of London.

When Darwin returned from his voyage with a large collection of specimens looking for assistance with their cataloguing and classification, Grant was one of the few to offer to examine the specimens but was turned down. It appears that Darwin did not want his work associated with controversy, though this resulted in the corals not being monographed, and they do not seem to have had further contact.[2] The ambitious Tory Richard Owen was vehemently opposed to Grant's evolution theory and succeeded in supplanting him at the Zoological Society as he moved to topple the "great Grant" as the city's leading comparative anatomist. Grant died still occupying the chair at UCL, a forgotten anachronism.

The second half of Grant's long professional life was not successful, possibly because Victorian England was no place for a radical, atheistic, homosexual (reputedly) Lamarckist on a low salary! (descriptions, probably justified, from Desmond's Huxley vol 2). Added to that, his style of teaching zoology was swept aside by Huxley's ebullient disciple E. Ray Lankester, who succeeded Grant into the new Jodrell Chair of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, organised by Huxley and carrying a greatly enhanced stipend. Lankester did, however, retain, reorganise and expand the college zoology museum, now known as the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL.

Radicalism and Wakley

Grant was a 'progressive' in both social and scientific terms. He was widely and probably correctly regarded as a materialist or atheist; certainly there was no place for the supernatural in his account of biology. He was a supporter of Thomas Wakley, The Lancet and the BMA, all of whom were anti-establishment in their day. When he came to London he was not eligible to become a Fellow of the RCP because he was not a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge. Entry to these ancient universities was restricted to those of the Anglican faith; others who wished to practice in England had to take a licence from the RCP or acquire an apothecary's qualification. Grant refused to take out a London licence from the RCP, and so cut himself off from a lucrative source of income. He campaigned all his life for reform to both the RCP and the RCS.[3] The main idea of the radicals was that government should take over or at least oversee the licensing powers of the medical corporations.[4]

Wakley responded to Grant's support for the Lancet and its radical programme with fulsome praise of Grant, and printed the text of all 60 lectures of Grant's comparative anatomy course in the Lancet for 1833-4. Reviewers agreed that Grant's course was the first 'comprehensive and accessible' expostion of philosophical anatomy in English.[5][6]

Grant and Geoffroy

On his frequent trips to the continent Grant became close friends with Geoffroy, a leading French comparative anatomist. Geoffroy was a deist, which is to say that he believed in a God, but also in a law-like universe, with no supernatural interference in the details of existence. This kind of opinion was common in the Enlightenment, and goes with a rejection of revelation and miracles, and does not interpret the Bible as the literal word of God. Geoffroy's theory was not a theory of common descent, but a working-out of existing potential in a given type. For him, the environment causes a direct induction of organic change. This opinion Ernst Mayr labels as 'Geoffroyism'.[7] It is definitely not what Lamark believed (for Lamark, a change in habits is what changes the animal). The direct effect of environment is not believed today by any main-stream evolutionist; even Lawrence knew in 1816 that the climate does not directly cause the differences between human races.

Geoffroy's comparative anatomy featured the comparison of the same organ or group of bones through a range of animals. He argued (1818-22) for the 'unity of composition' of all vertebrates.[8] One of his truly great discoveries was the homology of the opercular plates of the gill cover of fishes with the inner ear ossicles of mammals. Geoffroy's methods worked well for vertebrates, but when he compared vertebrates to invertebrates by turning invertebrates upside down and partly inside out – "every animal is either inside or outside its vertebral column" – he met his nemesis. In public debate in Paris before the Academie des Sciences (February 15, 1830) Georges Cuvier demolished his claim that the four Cuvierian branches of the animal kingdom could be reduced to one.[9] The relation between the ideas of Geoffroy and Cuvier can be expressed thus: whereas with Cuvier structure determines function, with Geoffroy function determines structure. The issue between them, however, was religious, political and social as well as scientific.[10]

The Edinburgh extramural medical schools were fertile ground for Geoffroy's ideas, and Scottish radicals became Geoffroyan disciples. Grant took these ideas to London, where he introduced homology (the basic Geoffroyan technique) to his UCL students. He also advanced Lamark and de Blainville, whose ideas were of similar vein, and included ideas of recapitulation theory.

Grant first went public on the subject of evolution in 1826.[11] Here he speculated that 'transformation' might affect all organisms. He noted that successive strata seemed to show a progressive, natural succession of fossil animals. These forms "have evolved from a primitive model" by "external circumstances": this is a clear Lamarkian statement. Also, Grant accepted a common origin for plants and animals, and the basic units of life ('monads'), he proposed, were spontaneously generated. This is both reductionism and materialism, and obviously atheistic in consequence. This kind of program went further than either Geoffroy or Lamark, though it is not a complete theory of evolution.

References

  1. ^ Desmond A. 1994. Huxley, the Devil's disciple, Joseph, London. p164
  2. ^ On Grant and Darwin see especially Desmond A. 1989. The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London. Chicago. p398-406
  3. ^ Grant R.E. 1841. On the present state of the medical profession in England. Renshaw, London.
  4. ^ Desmond A. 1989. The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London. Chicago. Chapter 3: Reforming the management of medicine and science.
  5. ^ Desmond 1989 The politics of evolution p109. For 'philosophical' here read naturalistic or materialistic, rather than vitalistic. The lectures "eschewed all natural theology" (Desmond)
  6. ^ Grant R.E. 1835-41. Outlines of comparative anatomy. Balliere, London.
  7. ^ Mayr E. 1982. The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution and inheritance. Harvard. p262 et seq
  8. ^ Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Étienne 1818-22. Philosophie anatomique. 2 vols, Paris.
  9. ^ Mayr The growth of biological thought p462 & following.
  10. ^ Appel T. 1987. The Cuvier–Geoffroy debate: French biology in the decades before Darwin. Oxford.
  11. ^ Grant R.E. 1826. Observations on the nature and importance of geology. Edinburgh New Philos. J. 14, 270-84.
  • Desmond A. Huxley: vol 1 The Devil's disciple, vol 2 Evolution's high priest. Joseph, London 1994-7.
  • Desmond A. and Moore J. Darwin. London 1991. ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
  • Grant R.E. Tabular view of the primary divisions of the animal kingdom. London 1861.
  • Desmond, Adrian J. (1989). The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine, and reform in radical London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14374-0.  

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